Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (****)

Directed by Michael Bay
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Ramon Rodriguez, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Julie White, Kevin Dunn, Tyrese Gibson, Isabel Lucas, Michael Papajohn, Rainn Wilson, Glenn Morshower, Matthew Marsden, John Benjamin Hickey.
Voice Cast: Peter Cullen, Anthony Anderson, Hugo Weaving, Darius McCrary, Reno Wilson, Frank Welker, Tony Todd, Charles Adler, Tom Kenny, Jess Harnell, Mike Patton, Robert Foxworth, Mark Ryan.
2009--150 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, language, crude and sexual material, drug material)

In 2007, "Transformers" was one of the best summer movies to have been released. No question about it. It wasn't perfect, but it signaled the strengths of director Michael Bay, who specializes in action and effects, rather than in characters or dialogue. With breathtaking visuals and Bay's famous (or infamous, depending on who you listen to) hyperkinetic editing that doesn't leave room for development, "Transformers" was a rollercoaster of a ride. Still, it had its flaws, most notably an overlong action finale and an irritating performance by John Turturro. The question was, would Bay be able to top the already huge success of his first film? The answer is an overwhelming "yes."

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is a new classic in the action genre, one of the best entries in a long time. After years of horrid action films (such as Bay's own "Armageddon" in 1998), movies like this coming rising from the phoenix ashes and rejuvenate hope that someone, somewhere, is making the "great trash" that Pauline Kael once reveled. She must be turning in her grave right now. "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is something of a miracle, a $200-million movie that wastes not a penny and has a masterwork to show for it. The movie is, no doubt, as dumb as a box of hair, but Bay knows this. His films (especially ones titled "Transformers") are about nothing more than explosions and carnage. Don't go in expecting "Citizen Kane," and you'll enjoy yourself. The dialogue is indeed pretty terrible, but who really cares in the long run, if you can see ginormous robots beating the robotic daylights out of each other, courtesy of some of the best visual effects in the medium?

The plot is a non-issue, but I'll run it down anyway. Sam Witwicky is still recuperating from finding a race of alien robots on Earth and banishing the evil Megatron to the depths of the sea. Now he's starting college, but is cut off after one day when he finds a sliver of the supposedly destroyed All-Spark. He has a breakdown in class and begins to see strange symbols in the front of his vision. When he is called by leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, to take part in the ultimate battle with the remaining Decepticons, Sam is reluctant to do his duty. But he is forced into action when the Decepticons attack and transported to Egypt to find a mysterious key that could save the world and its sun--if he finds it before the god of the Decepticons (the Satan of the film).

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" borrows elements from as many films as you can think of, but that doesn't stop Michael Bay from doing his thing. From the beginning of the movie, you can sense Bay at the top of his game like he's never been. An early action sequence in Shanghai sets the stage for what comes next and plays a major part in helping the heroes out. It's a thrilling sequence, but nothing compared to what Bay has in store for the next two hours. It seems that the entire film, every five minutes, is drinking a can of Monster spiked with stereoids; the adrenaline starts and never stops. Very little is off here--perhaps the pot-induced humor is tired and all the sensual angles of females get old after we've realize they're hot--but so much of it is insignificant to the film as a whole that you forgive and forget in a matter of seconds. Other attempts at humor, especially with regards to John Turturro (who really comes into his own here) and twin robots named Skids and Mudflap, are hugely successful and sometimes rip-roaring. The dramatic bits are vintage Bay--histrionics at best--but effective enough at showing the main couple's relationship troubles.

But audiences are looking for Bay's specialty: explosive mayhem. Dialogue and character development are not part of the Bay equation, and anyone who has seen any of Bay's movies knows this. The carnage on display contains some of the best-choreographed action in a long time. A sequence early on in which little tiny robots attack Sam at his house is nearly perfect in execution, culminating in a rescue attempt from Sam's personal "alien robot car," Bumblebee, that ratchets up tension in a matter of seconds. The hour-long finale ultimately doesn't fall into the trap of the finale in the first film (which was too long by half), even if it's longer by 25 minutes. The plotting is pretty hefty and a little labyrinthine, but the side characters explain everything as best they can. The action keeps things going, and by the end, everything comes together perfectly. Some shots are breathtaking in their aesthetics, especially in the homestretch of the finale. The robots are bigger and better than ever; Bay's visual effects artists have outdone themselves and topped the seemingly-impossible-to-top graphics in the original. And throughout, Bay has his signature hyperkinesis at an all-time high.

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is a breathless ride, and part of that is credited to the performances. LaBeouf still hasn't topped his role in "Disturbia" as far as acting goes, but he's a perfect fit for Sam Witwicky, unassumingly handsome and charming with that spark of life needed for an action hero from cartoonland. Megan Fox is hotter than ever, yes, but adds some layers to her role of Mikaela, so thankless in the first film. The main characters' relationship feels somewhat real, and there seem to be fireworks this time. John Turturro, as the sardonic Agent Simmons, spouts off fewer irritating one-liners and fleshes out his character to be a major player in the plot, instead of the nuisance he undoubtedly was in the original; he gets a moment of truthful and heartfelt civic duty in the middle of the climax, and when he voices this, we believe him. It's true none of these performances are Oscarworthy (which is the difference between this and the superior "Star Trek"), but they more than get the job done, reminding of Roland Emmerich at his very best with the well-acted "Independence Day" 13 years ago.

Also notable is the voice work, whose ante is upped considerably. Peter Cullen is, as he always has been, perfect for Optimus Prime, voice filled with emotion and pride and sometimes anguish. Turturro voices the best new robot, Jetfire, who isn't introduced until the middle of the movie and comes into play, big time, in the insane last half-hour. Tom Kenny (also known as Spongebob) voices the hysterical duo Skids and Mudflap; their every line of dialogue is witty and sarcastic but never over-the-top and always successful. Hugo Weaving gets a huge bump up in characterization and by the end we understand Megatron's motives, even if we don't agree with them. Finally Tony Todd does wonderfully evil work as mega honcho Decepticon leader president of the title (you'll figure it out).

Films like "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"--which represents this year's equivalent to "Wanted" in terms of being a masterpiece of trashy entertainment--are praiseworthy for being what they're meant to be and must not be criticized for what elitist critics think it "should be." You either understand Bay's filmmaking style or you don't. You know who you are. For me, though, it's easily superior to the already-excellent first film. Now we must wait for the third installment, and my hopes are they keep up what they're already doing and do not add too many villains. We already have two in this movie and that is enough. Maybe something different for a while. For now, Bay has made his best film, a masterwork in explosive cinema and one of the best action pictures of the decade.

1 comment:

Whatever Strikes! said...

Donno why, there were just too many eggects in this movie and the movie length was stretched for no real reason. I did not like it. Instead, I found it comparable to Mithun's movies in India where the hero is always safe irrespective of anything!

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